Drive south on Camino Al Norte, and in a few miles a strange thing happens. The street changes identity.
The road that extends deep into what developers believed would be the heart of a vibrant new North Las Vegas turns into Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard about the time it reaches the edge of the valley’s traditionally African-American neighborhood. Keep driving, and in a few more miles it leaves that neighborhood and becomes Highland Drive.
I take that road often and never cease to be embarrassed. That truncated tribute to Dr. King has always felt like a slap in the face, a relic of a Las Vegas that historically has been behind the curve when it comes to civil rights and race relations.
On Thursday, I traveled on the road with three names toward Aliante Casino and North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee’s State of the City address. Once there, I listened as Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kristin McMillan made her introductory remarks on the issue of cooperation among local municipalities. She surprised me when she quoted from Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.
“ ‘We are,’ as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,’ ” McMillan said. “ ‘Whatever affects one directly, affects everyone indirectly.’ ”
Yes, of course we are — whether we acknowledge it or not.
Back in 1986, the very thought of renaming Highland Drive after Dr. King was enormously controversial and racially charged. Business owners on parts of Highland known for their plumbing supply stores and flea-bitten topless bars lamented that making such a change would be expensive and inconvenient.
The Las Vegas City Council wrung its hands for months.
Council members initially rejected the idea of renaming the full length of Highland after the civil rights icon. They briefly entertained the notion of renaming three streets inside the old Westside after King, as if keeping the name contained in a poor black neighborhood would be a credible gesture of their fair-mindedness.
After being accused of racism, the council revisited the plan and voted to rename Highland in King’s honor — north of Bonanza Road. (It was later extended to Oakey Boulevard.)
Hey, the man only won the Nobel Peace Prize, preached nonviolence, was assassinated in 1968, and was one of the greatest civil rights leaders the world has ever known. But what is that next to the inconvenience and expense of reprinting letterhead and business cards?
When a few years later North Las Vegas began to boom, well, Camino Al Norte must have had a certain apolitical flavor to it. (Camino Al Norte, Spanish for “safe for white folks.”) Only part of the North Las Vegas portion of the street was named after King.
And the result was a road with three names, none of which is Hypocrisy.
Assemblyman Harvey Munford has lived not far from Martin Luther King Boulevard for decades.
“I think more than anything, the merchants and the business and retail people felt that there would be a stigma attached to naming the street after Dr. King, that it would have some negative impact on potential customers,” Munford says. “I think the community itself has improved a great deal, but I think this shows a lack of respect for history, the real history of the struggle of African-American people. … A favorite song from the struggle for civil rights is ‘We Shall Overcome,’ but sometimes I have wondered whether we really have overcome.”
Brenda Williams recalls the 1989 renaming ceremony near the corner of Highland and Washington Avenue. Proponents of the street change could only declare partial victory.
All these years later, the fragmented tribute seems absurd and even insulting. By any name, she says, the thoroughfare is heavily traveled, safe, and blossoming with evidence of economic progress.
“I think at this time things have changed,” Williams says. “The town has matured and hopefully the thinking has progressed. … Businesses are thriving on that street. … It’s time people came into the real world. We are a diverse community.”
There’s abundant irony on that street. There is an economically struggling North Las Vegas, where Camino Al Norte is not paved with anything like gold. Blue-collar Highland is much the same as it was in 1989.
Along the middle segment you’ll see poor neighborhoods, but you’ll also find small business and residential growth. At the corner of the boulevard and Carey Avenue, you’ll also find a handsome statue of King with a globe of the world in his hands.
On Monday, the nation marks a federal holiday in his honor. Our community will celebrate with a parade and get another opportunity to reflect on the important contribution and ultimate sacrifice one man of peace made in order to help us form a more perfect union.
The passage of time has only increased King’s stature in our country and the world. It also has made the street with three names all the more inappropriate and out of date.
It’s long past time to fully embrace King’s great legacy by spreading his namesake boulevard across our valley.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.